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Can I use an AirTag to track my dog?

Losing your dog is every dog lover’s nightmare. That’s why owners everywhere are talking about and buying Apple’s new £29 AirTags for their best friends.

So, are AirTags the key to sniffing out your lost dog? Sadly not. Here’s why.

What’s an AirTag?

Glad you asked! An AirTag is a small plastic disk about the size of a 2p coin but thicker. You can secrete one on any object you want to keep track of, and then (in theory) you can find where that object is any time with the Find My app on your iPhone. Yes, the same app you already use to find your friends and family can now track other objects including, perhaps, dogs.

Sounds brilliant, right? Yes, sure. Before we go on though, it’s important to understand how AirTags work.

How AirTags work

AirTags work by relying on the massive number of iPhones out there. That’s because, unlike purpose-made dog location trackers, AirTags do not have their own GPS receiver. They don’t even have their own connection to the mobile phone networks.

Instead, they rely entirely on any nearby iPhone (yours or anyone else’s), which they quickly talk to as it passes. It’s that passing iPhone’s location that’s transmitted to your iPhone, telling you where your AirTag is.

So far, so good, and you can see how brilliant this would be if you lost your AirTagged bag on a train or left your AirTagged wallet in a restaurant. Because there are always lots of other people with iPhones nearby, your lost object is sure to talk to a passing iPhone very quickly, letting you find out where it is. Brilliant!

But what if the lost AirTag isn’t in a busy train or restaurant? What if the AirTag and the object it was attached to was lost in the kind of place dogs get lost sometimes? How quickly would you find it?

Our ‘field’ test

To find out, we put an AirTag in a small plastic box, walked two minutes from the nearest house, and dropped it under a tree. It was just three metres off a path that’s regularly used by dog walkers and only 50 metres away from the nearest house. Dog walkers literally walk right past this spot all day, every day.

AirTag experiment

And then we went home and waited.

We waited to see how long it would be before a passing iPhone detected the AirTag and its location pinged back to us. How long, in other words, before our lost dog would be found. So how long was it?

There was silence for the first 10 minutes, but we expected that. But then nothing after half an hour, and nothing after more than an hour. This is getting worrying. In fact, it took several hours before we got the first fix on this lost AirTag’s location. And that was just a single one-off fix. There wasn’t another for several more hours. We even discovered that it was taking up to 15 minutes from the time of the fix for it to be reported on our own iPhone.

Fine for tracking down your dropped wallet, but no good at all for a dog that’s moving about and could be long gone by the time you reach the spot.

So we left the AirTag where it was for several days to see how often it would get detected in this favourite suburban dog walker’s haunt. And the answer was about once or twice a day. Yes, just one or two fixes in a whole day! And remember, this was in a local park surrounded by houses and people. The result would be much worse for a dog that was properly lost out in the countryside.

What does Apple say?

It turns out this is no surprise to Apple, who openly acknowledge the limitation. In fact, in an interview with Fast Company, Apple’s VP of Marketing said that AirTag was:

“… designed to track items not […] pets. If people do that, they just have to make sure that their moving pet gets into range of a device in the Find My network so its location can be tracked.”

Which is precisely what we discovered.

AirTags are great. Buy a couple and put them in your bag and wallet. And if your dog typically gets lost in a busy railway station, or you’re only worried about finding them in a crowded city, go ahead and use a £29 AirTag on them too.

If like us though, you tend to go most days to the closest park, you go somewhere further afield at weekends, and your dog is worth more than £29 to you, you’re going to need a different tracker. You’ll need a proper dog location tracker with its own built-in GPS receiver and its own independent mobile connection. That way, whenever and wherever your dog gets lost, even if there are no other iPhones around, you’ll get a quick and accurate first fix on them and continual updates all the time until you track them down and rescue them. And that, as the saying goes, is priceless.

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